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Towards an intersectional foreign policy for the United States

“A country’s foreign policy is a statement of its values and priorities. The implementation of foreign policy, across all of its various levers, is one demonstration of how a nation lives its values. Now, more than ever, the United States needs a feminist approach - one that fundamentally alters the way the nation conducts itself…” - The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)

Since the end of World War Two, the U.S. has led the liberal world order through diplomacy, multilateralism, and foreign assistance. After 9/11, it accelerated its development efforts to promote security and stability. In 2020, the U.S. invested in foreign assistance obligations across 11,000 activities and 212 countries, averaging around 1.2% of the federal budget, focusing 42% on long-term development aid. However, since the Taliban returned to power following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, U.S. assistance programs have faced growing criticism for their failure to evaluate local context and their lack of lasting, positive impacts. As the U.S. continues to lose credibility as a promoter of development, bipartisan support for foreign policy collapses and its ability to stop the post-liberal misogynistic backlash against human and women’s rights has become compromised.

Still, since the positive effects of a more peaceful, developed world are well-documented and because the U.S. continues to be the world’s largest donor, democracy promotion and international leadership remain relevant topics for the current administration.

Foreign assistance has effectively reduced extreme poverty, expanded access to clean water and sanitation, and improved health. But if we hope to tackle global, multi-dimensional challenges - like the climate crisis, growing social divides, and barriers to migrations - shying away from the world is not an option: foreign policy must center on tackling structural inequalities, which prevent lasting development, through a defined overarching strategy that focuses on building local capacities through inclusion. However, there is not yet a consensus about what this guiding policy should be. This article suggests some ways forward.

Feminist foreign policy officials have proposed pursuing gender equality as both a goal in itself and a strategy, arguing that by promoting women’s empowerment we reduce poverty, promote development and move towards peace. Particularly, an Intersectional Foreign Policy (IFP), that builds on Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP), provides opportunities for the U.S. to advance equality and re-establish its leadership in the development arena.

First proposed by former Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Margot Wallstrom in 2014, FFP has aimed to challenge male-dominated areas like foreign aid, trade, defense, and diplomacy by providing women and girls with rights, representation, and resources. FFP, and similar variations, have since been applied by Canada (2017), France (2019), and Mexico (2020). In 2021, Luxemburg, Spain, Malaysia, Libya, and Germany also made pledges to advance a FFP. In Sweden, FFP has impacted trade, assistance in reproductive health, diplomacy, and transparency. For instance, FFP was key to Sweden’s 2015 decision to halt bilateral arms agreements with Saudi Arabia, following Wallstrom’s allegations of Saudi’s human rights violations, and its 2017 pledge to stop providing aid to organizations complying with Trump’s global gag rule.

Since 2019, the ICRW’s Coalition for Feminist Foreign Policy has aimed to advance an FFP for the U.S. However, FFP has been criticised by feminist scholars and activists, particularly BIWOC (Black, Indigenous and Womxn of Color). These criticisms highlight various issues: 1) contradictions with other aspects of policy like international arms trade, 2) exporting a top-down approach that fails to include local knowledge and work with grassroots organizations, and 3) a failure to tackle racist and colonial patterns by imposing one, White vision of feminism, with little acknowledgement, support, and promotion of BIWOC voices.

An intersectional perspective, building on the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, sheds light on the unique, simultaneous impacts and challenges of social injustice and discrimination experienced by individuals facing multiple forms of oppression and discrimination. Such a perspective understands that a gender lens can only promote transformative social change if it explicitly considers intersectional identities such as race, nationality, (dis)ability, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status, and age. Following a similar approach, Chandra Mohanty insists on the importance of anti-racist, feminist politics in putting an end to imperial U.S. wars, which have long been promoted in the name of democracy.

Whilst feminist objectives have become compromised domestically by conservatives and the U.S. Supreme Court, the executive increasingly accumulates power in the foreign policy arena. Thus, IFP provides opportunities to re-think foreign policy, advancing feminist objectives where it remains possible. Defined as a lens designed to strategically guide States in their policymaking and interactions with other State and non-State actors, IFP centres decisions, activities, and attitudes on understanding, de-constructing, and including individuals and groups experiencing multiple layers of exclusion and discrimination. It is a framework anchored on disrupting existing patterns of power. Particularly, IFP understands that, if the objective is to foster a more developed world, thus promoting stability and peace, the imposition of liberal democracies is too uncritical.

In contrast, IFP evaluates the impacts of global challenges on groups with overlapping, disadvantaged, and excluded identities, who disproportionately experience poverty, the threat of war and climate change, the need to migrate, and disease, amongst others. To drive more impactful and transformative interventions, IFP argues that instead of focusing on liberal democracy promotion the key lies in re-centring inclusion; both through advocating for more complex interventions that tackle the nexus of power structures, and to a lesser extent through representative politics, since gender, as well as other inherited traits, impact policy decisions.

The question is then, what gives the U.S. the legitimacy to advance IFP? Despite advances made during the Biden administration, the U.S. is not “an example” when it comes to equality. However, no country has managed to do something like this: even Norway, a country that scores #1 in Georgetown’s Women, Peace and Security Index, focuses on middle- and upper-class women’s freedoms, failing to comprehend - or change - how its "gender-positive” policies negatively affect migrants like au-pairs and nurses, increasing dangers of exploitation and trafficking. In line with Toni Haastrup’s assertions, to be successful, IFP must avoid invoking its own experiences as good practice and recognize that gender-based discrimination, in its intersection with the racialized legacies of colonialism, exists everywhere. Therefore, the only prerequisite for the U.S. is to leverage IFP as a strategy for accountability, showing how individual actions add-up thoughtfully to a larger purpose.

This article has argued that the U.S. needs to rethink how it relates to the world by implementing an Intersectional Foreign Policy Strategy, in order to increase the quality and effectiveness of its aid and impact. To maximise success, such a strategy must be mainstreamed across sectors. All aid provided should go to projects that consider coherent, intersectional approaches to specific challenges. Support for projects must be flexible and long-term to ensure effective implementation, including funding and leveraging innovative funding methodologies. The U.S. must promote representation of women and disadvantaged groups in diplomacy, think tanks, and academia, and incorporate voices from the “Global South” through scholarships, fellowships, and job opportunities to facilitate improvement and application of IFP. The U.S. must also ratify CEDAW, the Domestic Workers Convention, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child to reposition itself on the fore-front of innovation and development. Gender-budgeting and education policy must be prioritized, to focus on women and girls and shift gendered norms. Lastly, frameworks to measure intersectionality should be developed to gather robust evidence and continuously inform policy-making and promote accountability.

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Author bio

Pía Madanes Quintanilla (she/her) is an M.S. in Global Affairs candidate at New York University, concentrating in peacebuilding and gender studies. Originally from Argentina, Pía is a Graduate Consultant for EcoPeace Middle East. She holds a Bachelor’s in Social Sciences and Journalism.

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Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

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